Friday, 5 January 2018

A Doll By Any Other Name

A 'story' on Stuff about the Escapade gift shop on Waiheke Island which sells Golliwog toys caught my eye today. 

The owner of the shop declined to give her full name so we only know her as Kat. 

Kat defended her decision to sell the $46 collectable toys firstly, on the grounds that society has become 'too PC', and secondly, that there is no reason for people to be offended given the toys are an "English talisman" and derive from "English chimney sweeps who were white people".

Now, we know that 'too PC' is rightwing code for ''I don't care if I offend people by what I say or do and my right to say and do it takes precedence over their feelings....'  so by using the phrase, Kat has located herself politically.

The second explanation / excuse would be funny if it didn’t have such an ugly history looming behind it. 

As anyone with the capability and time to engage in some basic research will discover, the original Golliwogg character was based on a doll that was based on a blackface minstrelsy character.  It, and the other blackface characters, were stereotypes of African Americans.

This is a fact. 

It is also a fact that for almost a century afterthe formal abolition of slavery in the USA, a brutal form of apartheid in some US states perpetuated the exploitation and oppression of back people. Similar situations existed domestically and in the colonies of European slave owning nations.

The role of negative racial stereotypes in this process cannot be ignored or sidelined. Attempts to sever negative racial stereotypes from their historical origins always serve a malign ideological agenda even if the person repeating the claims does not intend to do so. 

And then there’s logic.

Why would a doll that was based on an English chimney sweep or his sad little apprentices have tight curly black hair and be wearing the brightly coloured clothing of a mid 19th century 'dandy' as in Frances Upton’s original version of the Golliwogg? 

Why would other Golliwog dolls be dressed as blackface minstrelsy characters such as a field hand, a ‘black mammy', or a 'piccaninny’?

It's interesting that the defenders of the 'Black Peter' tradition in Holland also claim the reason the character has a black face and hands is because of the soot from the chimneys he goes down. 

If you are happy to ignore history and logic that might be a satisfactory explanation for the black face and hands but does not explain the Afro style wigs, the bright red lips or the pristine white and vivid colours of the costumes.

If people want to own or sell these toys they are free to do so but they should be honest and admit they just don't care that for some people the things are a direct link to, and symbol of a brutal racism that still impacts on the lives of people of colour today.

And they should not embarrass themselves - or their country - by repeating ludicrous stories about the genesis of the dolls in white English chimney sweeps, or in 'gûl' dolls owned by the children of people employed on the Suez Canal who wore uniforms stamped with the letters WOGS which stood for 'workers on government service'- or any other ideologically motivated, ahistorical claptrap.

Edit: My other comments on this issue can be found here, here and here.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Bursting The Feel-Good Bubble

The Dodo is an American web site headquartered in New York.  It was started and is run by Izzy Lerer, daughter of media executive Ken Lerer, founder of the Huffington Post.

The site was set up in 2014 and makes its money from advertising. Every click on a video, every like or follow on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or viewing on You Tube puts money in the company’s pocket.  It delivers a constant stream of ‘feel good’ videos usually with advertising embedded at strategic points. It has a massive Facebook presence, generating 1 billion video views in 2015.  

It focuses on stories about wild and domestic animal rescues and recently has begun pumping out loads of videos about severely disabled animals that people have adopted. It often takes anthropomorphism into the realms of the truly delusional and animals are often featured wearing human style clothing with the ubiquitous references to ‘fur babies’. 

There are seldom any identifying elements in the story and you don’t usually get to know the names or locations of the people who feature in them so following up on a story or checking on its veracity is almost impossible. People who want their moment of internet fame or who are building their own commercial presence on social media, submit videos, and it was one of these that made me stop and think about this increasingly weird, hyper-sentimentalised presence that had inserted itself into my Facebook feed.

It was a story about a youngish, physically slight American woman who decided to adopt a heavy set, black, cropped ear, ex-fighting dog because such dogs are almost impossible to rehome in the US.  The dog had behavioural issues - understandably, was closed down and unfriendly and would growl and lunge at her so she decided to adopt another pit bull, a female. The dogs bonded and the male perked up and soon became a goofy, sweet, friendly puffball of a dog. Allegedly. Cue violins and a chorus of ‘aahs’ from the assembled bull breed loving multitudes.

There is no way of telling if any of this story is true. It may have been staged. The woman's way of dealing with the dogs appeared to be to treat them as if they are either her children or her equals. She may be totally in control of them but she would not be the first dog owner to find that one day, one or both of the animals decides it’s top dog and challenges her as pack leader.  Or that something from the dogs’ past triggers aggressive behaviour towards her or, more likely in the case of an ex-fighting dog, towards another dog. 

It happens - and it happens with all sorts of dogs from toys to giants because a dog is, above all else, a predator, a social animal and hierarchical.  A dominant dog will push boundaries with dogs above them in the pack hierarchy.  When a dog humps your leg, that is dominance behaviour.  When a dog growls at you if you sit on the couch with it - that’s either fear or dominance/ aggression and in the dog (as in some humans) the two are closely entwined.

We infantilise dogs for the most part - keeping them dependent on us for food and shelter and status. A lot of dog owners don’t understand their pets as animals – aren’t prepared to cope with the natural behaviours of a dog and as a result a lot of dogs end up being abused, and/ or dumped and killed.

You can rehabilitate a dog that has had a traumatic past and it is a good thing you are doing but you really do need to know what you are doing and you need to realise that an abused dog may never fully lose the shadows of its troubled past. A frightened, stressed dog may snap and bite; a dog with a strong fight or dominance drive may go beyond a single bite; a larger more powerful dog is able to inflict more damage than a smaller dog.

A dog we adopted at 4 years of age had been abused and, while he never offered us any sort of aggression, if cornered or pressured by a stranger, he’d growl and if the growl wasn’t heeded, he’d snap. So we made sure he was never put in that position. Our current dog was a failed working dog and when we first got her she would panic if you put your face near her - to her that was a threat. Even after more than 2 years, although she is completely relaxed with us, if a stranger does that, she will panic, and if a stranger picks up a stick or piece of pipe near her, she will still cower.

I saw a pit bull attack – without provocation – a much larger dog at a fete in Queens Park in London in 2008. The pit bull’s owners were unable to stop their dog, which had latched onto the other dog’s face, until a man in the crowd of horrified on-lookers kicked the pitbull as hard as he could in the midriff. It let go and the injured dog’s owner rushed off to get veterinary aid for her badly injured and heavily bleeding dog.  

Loads of people have had to witness their pets being killed by larger or more aggressive and out of control, badly socialized dogs. And it’s not just pets that get mauled, sometimes it’s kids. It happens.

There’s a lot of debate within and between the pro and anti ‘pitbull’ camps about the strength of a bull breeds’ bite relative to other dogs. There are a lot of untrue or exaggerated stories emanating from each of the camps also. From the pro camp we get the myth that bull terrier breeds such as the Staffie were used as ‘nanny dogs’ – guarding children. Some may well have had such a job within some families but they were certainly not bred for that.

The original Bulldogs, as their name suggests, were bred to bait bulls and bears. Humans’ capacity for mindless cruelty and the cruel exploitation of animals is seemingly limitless and these ugly traditions go back a very long way.  With bull baiting the dogs gripped and held onto the animal’s hind legs and belly. Shorter jaws can exert a stronger bite and a longer lower jaw allows the dog to maintain a vice like grip. This is not a mechanical ‘locking’ of its jaw but an ability to maintain a stronger grip for longer on the prey animal.  It’s why some people who own these breeds like to demonstrate their dog’s grip capacity by getting the animal to grab a stick, then hold it up in the air or swing it around.  And it is not just the jaw strength, it’s the incredibly powerful musculature of the neck, shoulders and forelegs.

With the passage of legislation to stop animal cruelty, pitting dogs against each other became popular and a variety of square headed, short-haired dogs were bred as fighting dogs by crossing bull dog types with terriers.

Bull terrier type dogs were and are used as a fighting dog because they are powerfully built, have very powerful musculature, strong jaws, and on average an easily triggered fight response that makes them competitive with other dogs, and a strong kill drive with prey animals.  They may be fiercely loyal to and protective of their owners and other members of their pack but may be a danger to outsiders if not well socialized.

In the USA where there is a large sub culture of dog fighting and the keeping of dogs associated with fighting, there are several distinct bull terrier breeds - the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.  Fighting dogs may be mixes of one or more of these breeds. Importantly for this type of dog, being owned by some very unpleasant, inadequate humans has increased their reputation for fierceness towards other animals and people.   It is not an unfounded reputation and for that we must blame the humans but it is stupid to ignore the reality of the breeds’ physical and behavioural characteristics.

So, in light of all this, I posted a comment on The Dodo story : “given the combined weight and bite power of these dogs I hope she’s as in control of them as she seems to think she is.”

I didn’t think anyone would even notice it let alone take offence but The Dodo is a ‘feel good zone’. You click on the stories to get your daily / hourly fix of warm fuzzies and no-one is supposed to burst the bubble. If you do you are likely to attract a load of angry comments. How crazy the first angry comments are sets the tone and others follow it like hounds on a scent. 
I had committed several grave sins: I had burst the feel good bubble, and I was perceived to be a pit bull critic and a perpetuator of pit bull stereotypes, and as such I made myself a target.  The site is heaving with pit bull and bull breed fans. People who post what are perceived to be negative comments about these types of dogs are a THREAT and are attacked. Invariably – not always, but mostly – the attacks are vulgar, illogical, semi -or incoherent, poorly written, and abusive. 

The complete lack of logic, the incoherence, the weirdness - and the sheer boorishness were bad enough but it was the ageism and sexism which angered me most. It made me reflect on how deeply embedded in our culture the routine denigration of older people is.

The Unhinged Ones will trawl through your social media profile in search of ammunition which, in lieu of intelligent disputation – they hurl at you much as an angry chimpanzee might hurl excreta at visitors to a zoo - except the chimp has good reason to be angry and to throw shit.

I should have deleted the comment as soon as the negative stuff started but the page wouldn't let me and it took me a while to work out how to delete it from my FB feed. in deleting the original comment, I inadvertantly deleted the 2000 or so responses.   

My comment received positive so many lit was the first thread under the story which meant it was the one most people read through. A devil's circle.  

Before I got bored and realised that my clever responses were going straight over the heads of most of the shit-throwers and I was helping pour money into The Dodo’s corporate pockets, I was on a crusade against the forces of reaction and rampant stupidity. On balance I’m glad I fought back because every time the bullies get away with this sort of stuff they are emboldened and they must not be allowed to win.  Logic or mockery are the best weapons as snarling back or being abusive merely plays their game and even if logic/humour don’t get through their thick skulls, loads of other people will be cheered up by it.

A majority of the angry comments came from women although the most threatening and abusive were from men. Clearly still locked in emotional infancy and retaining an obsession with poo, some of the men's insults centred around a presumed age-related incontinence.  But the prize for the most weirdly abusive went to a man who claims to be a dog trainer and photographer. I have retained the FB link to protect other people who share his name.

 ‪Ricky Fontaine‪  "I hope your horses kick you to death you old piece of shit. Eat a bag of dicks you washed up old hag.‬"

It makes you wonder what was he on, apart from an overdose of adrenaline and testosterone. 

If these people are typical of pit bull owners and fans, then other people's concerns - that these sort of dogs are dangerous because they're often a reflection of their owners’ mindsets - are well founded.

If people want to break down prejudices against the bull breeds they love, it might be an idea to stop behaving like human versions of the stereotypical pit bull. 

Much Ado About Dairying

The domestication of cattle occurred around 20,000 years ago.  Humans learned how to make the exploitation of other living creatures more efficient by keeping them in captivity.  The growing of grains, fruit, vegetables and the keeping of livestock opened up a whole new range of possibilities for production of surplus and trade which laid the economic foundations of the global phallocracy – but that’s another story.

To be able to colonise the colder regions of the planet, early humans had to have clothing to protect them and foods that could be stored through the seasons when plants could not produce.  In areas where building materials were scarce they needed shelter.  Animals provided all of those.

The vagaries and the dangers of the hunt and the gathering of natural foodstuffs were replaced by the relative certainty and safety of the settlement and agriculture and animal husbandry. Subsistence farmers always hunted and gathered to supplement what they could grow and raise.  The trapping of birds and mammals, catching fish, gathering wild fruits, roots and berries provided essential supplements to early agriculture, ensuring a wider variety of nutrient rich foods as well as a buffer against domestic animal deaths and/or crop failures.

This continued right through until the emergence of forms of social organisation that extended the notion of private property into the commons and denied people their traditional rights to hunt and gather.

Central to many societies was the cow - raised for its meat, milk, skins – and when neutered, used as a beast of burden. Humans learned to breed their domestic animals for certain physical characteristics – and most importantly – for tractability.  An animal too attuned to the call of the wild is dangerous to its handlers and disruptive of the herd.

Traditionally in our culture the cow has given up the milk intended for her young to be used by us as a drink and to make cheese, butter and yoghurt. Her male young and any unwanted females have been raised to varying ages to be killed for meat and other products such as leather and gelatine. 

Because the male or bobby calves are not wanted – any that are full dairy i.e. sired by a dairy breed bull – are killed before they’re a week old.  Some are killed at birth. Producers who put their dairy cows to a beef bull – e.g. Angus or Hereford - will feed the calves for a few weeks and sell both neutered males and heifers to be raised for veal or beef.  

Veal production involves keeping calves locked up so they do not develop strong muscles, and killing them very young.  Traditionally, beef production involved feeding a cattle beast until aged 4-6 years before slaughter and hanging the carcass for 3 weeks or so before butchering. These days most beef sold in supermarkets is from immature beasts – aged 14-18 months - i.e. slaughtered well before they are fully grown and not hung for very long before being butchered.

Dairying has changed out of all recognition in the past few decades.  People who could afford a cow would sometimes also keep the calf at foot – allowing it to suckle until old enough to be weaned. They’d take what milk they needed and maybe sell some to neighbours. Some farmers would keep a small herd and sell milk locally. 

As all dairy products go off very quickly unless kept cool, it was with reliable refrigeration that dairying began to grow in scale. It took off into the industrialised, intensive and large-scale process we see today with another sea change in production – the increase in the production of infant formula and of processed foods using milk solids as a filler and protein booster. 

New Zealand went from an economy geared to the needs of the British consumer to catering to the needs of a global market in milk solids. 95% of milk produced here is exported, most of in the form of powder. 

Despite being contributors to the infrastructure that enables large-scale milk production, NZ consumers of dairy products pay international prices – often paying as much for milk, butter, cheese etc as a person buying the same product in Australia or the UK.

Dairying contributes to the NZ economy but most of the money generated by it goes into the pockets of a relatively small number of people domestically; to the overseas banks which hold the milk producers’ mortgages, and to the overseas companies which produce most of the equipment – the tractors, trucks, pumps, irrigators, milking machines, and the vast array of chemicals on which the industry is almost wholly dependent – the artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and anthelmintics.

Apart from how much of the money generated goes into private pockets and overseas – there are the environmental costs, the true scale of which are not calculated or made public let alone be factored into the industry’s production costs – and most of which are, or will be socialised, i.e. paid for out of the public purse.

Like all of the boom industries – from cocksfoot seed production through wool, lamb, apples, kiwi fruit, wine – dairying will reach peak exploitation and crash, leaving behind it a landscape altered to a  greater degree than its get rich quick predecessors.

Look at any dairy conversion – to the untutored eye it looks idyllic, an animal paradise – lots of mates, a once a day trip to the milking shed and the rest of the time chilling out eating emerald green grass and clover.

What’s not to like?

Just about all of it in truth.  There is the inherent cruelty in the process. We take the milk a calf would otherwise drink - the calf is the means to the end of the milk – and very often is surplus to requirements so is killed at, or very close to birth. The same happens with goats in case people haven’t thought about it. All farm animals are taken away from their mothers at some point but only the young of animals used for milk production are removed at or close to birth.

Supporters of modern dairying will tell you the cows don’t really care or repeat stories of cows that attack their own calves.  There are loads of myths and misconceptions to justify what is an inherently cruel process that has been made much worse by being industrialised.

The oldest recorded cow was 48 years old when she died and in good living conditions, a range fed cow should live to 20 or more.  A modern dairy cow is doing well if she makes 9. 

Under natural conditions, calves stay with their mother until weaning at 8 to 11 months.  Beef calves raised by their mothers suckle an average of 5 to 6 times every 24 hours.  A cow will naturally wean her calf gradually at between 8 and 11 months, but she will continue to interact with her offspring, choosing them to graze and groom with for several years. 

Cows have powerful maternal drives – my Dad always told us never get between a cow and her calf as she’s more dangerous than a bull – but they also learn how to be mothers from being mothered themselves and from watching older more experienced cows with their offspring. 

Most modern dairy cows are not mothered; they are removed at birth and raised on the bottle; and they never get to bond with their own offspring. Is it any wonder that some view their offspring as something alien?

We have been selectively breeding – both for increased milk production and for tractability and reduced maternal drive – for generations.  Any cow with a powerful maternal drive may be a danger to the people who want to take her newborn away from her – and – because animals feel others’ stress and anger and will learn from each other – may disrupt the herd. Chances are such an animal will be culled. If they are very good producers they may be dealt to with cattle prods until their production drops off and it’s economic to send them to slaughter.

Cows are naturally migratory; they would move across grazing land away from their own droppings; they would not naturally congregate for long periods on riparian grasses – water holes are where predators also go to drink and hunt.

They would graze and browse a wide range of vegetation. IF able to, a cow will browse tress and shrubs and even such hard foliage as flaxes and cabbage trees, ie they will choose high fibre, low sugar alternatives to the soft, water and sugar rich production grasses and legumes they are mostly forced to eat on dairy units.

Such an unnatural diet is why dairy cows often shit green water.  A healthy cow pat from an animal which can choose what it eats is very different from the diarrhoea that comes out the rear end of many – if not most - dairy cows.

There is a metabolic price paid for that digestive imbalance and for breeding for unnaturally high milk production. The cow progressively loses body condition – to the point of literal emaciation.  Most NZ dairy cows I have seen lack body fat and – more worryingly – a great many lack skeletal muscle. 

A beef cow’s udder is high up between her back legs; it is relatively small and the calf will suckle every 4 to 5 hours meaning the udder does not get distended.  

The huge, low-slung udder of the dairy cow makes it hard for a calf to suckle easily even it were allowed to but it is easier for the producer to milk mechanically - and it can carry vastly greater quantities.  

Milking just once a day means the udder can get painfully distended and heavy. The bulk and weight of the full udder makes the cow move unnaturally – forcing her body weight out onto the outer claw of her hind hooves and creating muscle-skeletal imbalances in the hind limbs and pelvis.  The cow may be at risk of a metabolically induced laminitis because of her diet and relative immobility, and the distended udder can result in an added mechanical stress on the laminar structures of the outer claw of the hind hooves which will not be well conditioned to moving on hard terrain.

Finally, there’s the loss of shade and shelter to facilitate the giant central pivots that pour vast amounts of mainly groundwater onto artificially fertilised pastures - and flush vast amounts of nitrates and faecal coliforms into over ground and underground water systems.

Watch any animal on a hot day – they will seek shade if they can find it; ditto for shelter on a cold windy or wet day.  Dairy cows more often than not are denied both shade and shelter. The stress of over heating in summer, and from loss of body heat in winter must add to the strains on the animal’s metabolism.

Bottom line is there’s not much to like about modern intensive dairying.